Helen Bowell

The Doctor, the Murderer and the Wolf: Three Writing Prompts on Characters and the Surreal

Since 2018, I have been writing poems about a character called ‘the barman’. He doesn’t have a name, and neither does anyone else in the world of the poems (unless they’re a famous person). I’m currently working towards a pamphlet about the speaker’s relationship with the barman, traced backwards through time. (You can read one of these poems, called ‘Lobster’, in bath magg, and watch me read ‘Barman in Eden’, for a bit of an idea.)

I’m interested in what happens when you don’t name someone or something. Or, rather, when you give it a name that isn’t a personal name but some kind of description – like the eponymous milkman in Anna Burns’s Booker Prize winning novel, Jane Yeh’s ninjas, Luke Kennard’s murderer, or Emily Berry’s Doctor. Things get a little surreal and disjointed. It feels a bit like you’re in a dream, like you’re having a conversation with someone who doesn’t have a face. This is a rich kind of weirdness. In particular, I find this detachment allows you to create all kinds of emotions without ever mentioning how anyone feels.

Let’s start with Emily Berry’s Doctor. He pops up in a couple of the poems in her first collection Dear Boy, but let’s look at ‘The Incredible History of Patient M’ (what a title). It opens:

I went swimming with the Doctor;

he wore his stethoscope and listened

to the ebb and flow. “Bad line,” he said.

In the dream-logic of these poems, the Doctor is always the Doctor, the whole Doctor, and nothing but the Doctor. The poet doesn’t bother explaining why a patient would go swimming with their Doctor, or why the Doctor would bring a stethoscope and listen to the water. We just accept it to be the case. It’s that specific, unquestioning strangeness which allows the reader to join the dots themselves, figuring out the motivations and emotion. It’s much more interesting than Emily Berry saying, “My Doctor was being very inappropriate by coming swimming with me, and it was really weird that he brought his stethoscope along.”

Only when re-reading this poem now do I realise that one of my very first barman poems opens, ‘I go swimming with the barman’, after Emily Berry. So I challenge you to write a poem that begins ‘I go swimming with the…’ and create a character who is only ever referred to as one aspect of their identity, after Emily Berry. It can be a job, like the barman or the Doctor, or it could be a different kind of descriptor – the stamp-collector, the amateur pianist, the foodie. The important thing is to avoid at all costs establishing any relationship between this person and the speaker of your poem – it’s not ‘my’ TV repairman, it’s ‘the’ TV repairman. Do not explain how they know each other. They’re just going swimming. What have they brought from their named identity to this situation? What happens by the pool, in it? You can move out of this scene and back into their natural habitat (in ‘The Incredible History of Patient M’ we return to the surgery), or you can stay in the water if you like. I’ll wait here while you get started – find a timer and give yourself eight minutes and just write whatever weirdnesses come to your mind. Go!


Nice one.

Now, I mentioned Luke Kennard’s poem ‘The Murderer’ earlier. It’s one of the first poems that I ever loved. Go and read it. You could even write your own ‘I take the … for coffee’ poem too if you fancy, after Luke Kennard.

In fact, that’s not such a bad idea. Go ahead, I’ll wait here. Choose a new character to write about or stick with the same one. I’ll give you eight minutes to tap out some drafty thoughts.


Okay, wow, great work. Would you like to share anything with the group? Probably not yet, huh. It’s okay, we’ll lurk in this awkward silence a little longer in case you change your mind.

Now, let’s take a quick look at Señor Kennard’s wolf poems. There are lots of them to read and even more to say about them, but I shall mostly let you do your own thinking. I just want to point out how good he is at dialogue. Here’s a zine-ful of dialogic prose poems between poem-Kennard* and the wolf. It’s a series of amazing, punchy vignettes.

*I’m not 100% sure whether the speaker of the wolf poems ever refers to himself as Luke Kennard, but throughout his oeuvre several of Kennard’s speakers definitely do, in Cain and in Truffle Hound, and the interview I’m going to show you later intentionally conflates poet-Kennard and poem-Kennard. I love it when poets use their own names, particularly their full names, in a poem. What a power play. Right, back to this zine:

‘All superheroes are essentially giant phalluses,’ says the wolf. ‘If you were a superhero, which would you be? Batman, Spiderman or Superman?’

‘Batman,’ I say.

The wolf writes, “Thinks penis is a bat” on the whiteboard.

I am back on the couch now, trying to keep still.

‘Now for the Rorschach test,’ says the wolf, picking up a pile of white cards.

On each card the wolf has daubed black and red ink.

‘They’re supposed to be butterfly paintings,’ I say.

‘What?’ snaps the wolf.

‘I mean they’re supposed to be symmetrical,’ I say. ‘You’re supposed to paint one side and fold it over.’

‘Fascinating,’ says the wolf and writes, “Believes everything should make sense” on the whiteboard. ‘A fine sentiment from a man who thinks his penis is a bat,’ he adds.

The wolf is always catching the speaker out, bending logic to undermine him no matter what he says. And we’re laughing with the wolf, and so is Kennard the poet (if not poor Kennard the speaker). Humans, eh? All so simple.

Speaking of which, you might enjoy this short interview from 2009 between Kennard’s editor and the wolf.

WOLF: … I do hope Kennard is going to write me some more poems to appear in, don’t you? I mean I am bloody good at it. I’m the best thing he has going for him at the moment.

By speaking through the Wolf, Kennard can be excruciatingly self-deprecating – but somehow, he takes us right to the edge of funny, points towards the boring pathetic self-wallowing poetry some of us wrote as teens, and doesn’t step across. Kennard’s poems make me sadly laugh out loud. Poor, daft Kennard. Never should have let the Wolf go.

Here’s the prompt: write a poem (or a prose poem, if you’re feeling particularly inspired) full of dialogue. And I don’t just mean one or two lines. I mean the whole poem, start to finish.

If that’s not something you’ve ever really done, that might be enough of a challenge. But for those wanting to go extra Kennardian, set up a wolf-like situation: have an unnamed character constantly undermining the speaker, no matter what they say or do.

You can bring back your character from before, or you could try making a new non-human character – the alien, the cushion cover, the spider. By having a non-human character outwit your human speaker, your poor narrator will appear even sillier.

Most often in Kennard’s poems, his characters are trying to help the speaker, a bit more roughly than the speaker can take, since he loves to wallow. In the prose poems we just looked at, the wolf takes on the role of a psychiatrist; in Cain, Cain is a psychiatric nurse. You could add this mentor-y power dynamic to your scenario too, if you like – maybe your character is playing the role of a friend trying to cheer the speaker up, or an aunt trying to help them pick some clothes out.

For added spice, use your own name in the poem.

Finally, your character can’t just be mean. They have to be bouncing off what your speaker is doing/saying. Use your surroundings! And make it as surreal as you like.

Pop another timer on and give yourself a good ten minutes.


That’s three drafts! Well done. Go and get yourself a cuppa.

Further reading if you’re into this vibe: of course Emily Berry and Luke Kennard’s books, but also Claudia Rankine. Citizen does this with another layer – using ‘you’ rather than a speaker. Read some brilliant sections here. Also: Jane Yeh, Caroline Bird, Jack Underwood, Morgan Parker, Sara Peters, Gboyega Odubanjo, and Poetry Londonand bath magg publish a lot of this kind of thing. And of courseThe Poetry Review which Emily Berry edits.

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